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The University of Southampton

“Visual Sounds: Cornelius Cardew’s Treatise as Object and Event” Seminar

13 March 2012
Room 1083 Music, Building 2 Highfield Campus University of Southampton SO17 1BJ

For more information regarding this seminar, please email Dr Florian Scheding at .

Event details

A seminar by Jane Alden

Almost fifty years after he first circulated pages of Treatise, Cornelius Cardew's graphic score remains unsurpassed for its calligraphic and conceptual originality. It has been performed on acoustic and electronic instruments in numerous countries, by small and large ensembles; the rock band Sonic Youth included a page as a track on their best-selling album Goodbye 20th Century, and an electronic version was recently made using samples from children's television shows. But attempts to perform the work with voices have been curiously lacking. This is all the more surprising given Cardew's own choral background (as a chorister at Canterbury Cathedral), and John Tilbury's suggestion that anthropocentric interests motivated the composer's exploration of indeterminate notation.

This paper draws on performance-based research undertaken with the London-based Vocal Constructivists, a group formed expressly to prepare, over a period of months, the first sung rendition of Treatise. All parameters were open, other than that the performance rely solely on the human body, unmediated by instruments. Our aim was to test the flexibility of Cardew's notation. Believing the score's length-193 pages-to be a crucial part of its identity, the group decided to perform the work in its entirety. To arrive at our realization, the singers explored the idiosyncratic notation as a form of social practice, with the score supplying open-ended vocabulary for collective discourse. My role as participant-observer included constructing a performative ethnography, utilizing methods pioneered by ethnomusicologists but in this case tailored specifically to engagement with graphic notation. My findings, supported by video documentation from both rehearsals and performances, call into question the binarism of the recent shift in musicological thinking from a text-based to a performance-based understanding of music. I suggest instead that musical markings on the page of graphic scores such as Treatise have their own performative potential inherent in, rather than separate from, their scripted exactness. Most controversially, the anchoring of performance within Cardew's notation leads me to argue against the frequent assumption that such scores involve a merging of artistic media.

Speaker information

Jane Alden, Wesleyan University

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